Swartz is a hero in the online and information-freedom communities. This documentary, while excessive with the halo treatment, makes a moving case for such distinction and raises vital questions about the government’s regard for civil liberties.
Using home movies, footage and talking heads, writer-director Brian Knappenberger (“We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists”) presents the life and moral journey of the Illinois-bred Swartz, beginning with his days as a computer-fascinated toddler.
At 12, Swartz created a site resembling the yet-to-be-invented Wikipedia. At 14, he helped develop RSS. At 19, he was a major force behind Reddit and was a T-shirt-wearing millionaire.
His transformation occurred when, fired by Conde Nast, Swartz began concentrating on social-justice activism, centering on his belief that online public data, often available by subscription only, should be free.
Swartz downloaded nearly 20 million pages of public documents from the federal court system’s database and released them, in one of numerous hacktivist projects.
His Demand Progress nonprofit helped kill the wrongheaded Stop Online Piracy Act.
Swartz’s primary legal troubles stemmed from a 2010 episode in which, using the MIT network, Swartz downloaded an “extraordinary volume of articles” from JSTOR, an academic library. Though he didn’t profit financially, and JSTOR filed no charges against him, Swartz was charged with 13 felony counts, largely under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, legislation considered antiquated. Conviction could mean 35 years in prison.
Swartz hanged himself in January 2013. Observers, describing overzealous and persecutive law enforcement, blame the U.S. government for the tragedy.
As family members, colleagues, girlfriends and tech-world notables repeatedly issue pro-Swartz comments, Knappenberger paints Swartz as a martyr — no detractors agreed to be interviewed — and viewers don’t really get a deep-down sense of Swartz.
Additionally, Knappenberger sometimes gets hazy when detailing whether Swartz was breaking the law, exploiting a loophole or simply peeving prosecutors with his aggressive endeavors.
Still, the film’s information and insights demonstrate that Swartz got a terrible deal and that the government acted with questionable regard for constitutional principles. It also shows how lawmakers have fallen behind technology and how information-access issues figure into daily life.
Foremost, the fittingly angry, consistently engrossing film succeeds as a salute to Swartz, whose efforts weren’t for naught. Last year, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, introduced Aaron’s Law to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, for starters.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz ★★★
Starring Aaron Swartz, Ben Swartz, Noah Swartz, Robert Swartz, Susan Swartz, Tim Berners-Lee, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman
Written and directed by Brain Knappenberger
Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes